David Ellsworth is a true master when it comes to woodturning. I mean that not in the off-the-cuff overused sense of the term “he’s a master,” but in the actual definition.
A master dedicates himself to the craft not just for the results but for the process, the practice, and the spiritual aliveness that occurs at every point along the way. Mastery is David Ellsworth’s connection to the art of woodturning.
You don’t have to turn wood long before you hear the name, David Ellsworth. And there’s a good reason.
Road to Mastery
I can’t think of many creative outlets (a.k.a. hobbies) with as many possible and potential levels of expertise and artistic expression as woodturning.
Consider this for a moment. A person can learn how to turn a bowl in an afternoon and walk away with a finished piece. That same person, even with diligent regular practice, can spend the rest of their life mastering and honing the art of bowl turning.
If we choose, we can simply play and dabble with wood turning and have fun. There’s nothing wrong with that.
However, we can also immerse ourselves in the process of turning and grow our skills to the point where we can stretch and creatively explore endless possibilities.
David Ellsworth is a person who has spent the majority of his adult life turning and creating expressions through the medium of wood. His art embodies the intimate beauty of the natural world while also documenting his life and creative journey.
Where Does It All Start?
When I asked David what advice he would like to share with new or novice wood bowl turners, he replied, “practice, practice, practice.”
Hm? Dang. Apparently, there isn’t a shortcut. Ha.
David further explained, “practice on inexpensive green wood, like poplar, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. That’s how we learn.”
How many times do we fuss and worry about making just the right cut at just the right angle? That internal tension doesn’t benefit our turnings.
Give yourself a break and play a bit, while maintaining regular safety practices, of course.
David went on to say, “Blow it up. Go through the bottom. No big deal…it’s only wood.”
David Ellsworth In Person
Recently I was able to attend a David Ellsworth workshop at his home studio in North Carolina.
The entire weekend was an incredible experience that included learning, turning, eating meals with David and his wife Wendy, turning, being snowed in and spending a couple of evenings with them, turning some more and digging my car out of their snowed-in driveway at the end.
It was an amazingly memorable experience and an excellent story for a later time.
In person, David has a very methodical and easy-to-follow way of teaching woodturning. Even with his many years as an expert, he savors sharing the fundamentals that every turner must understand.
Here are seven valuable insights I learned from David Ellsworth.
1. Just A Bit Off
David starts most turnings, whether it be a bowl or a hollow form, between centers.
With a drive (or dead) center in the headstock spindle and a live center rotating in the tailstock, the initial bowl blank is pinned to the lathe with pressure applied at the tailstock.
Working with two points gives David the ability to stop and adjust the position of the bowl blank.
Why adjust the bowl blank?
That’s a great question. After the bottom shape of the bowl has been roughly shaped, the grain and form of the wood bowl become more apparent.
Because the blank is mounted between centers, the tailstock can easily be loosened to release and reposition the blank to better line up grain lines or internal structures that weren’t first visible.
David also uses this technique to adjust the grain lines of the wood along the top of the bowl.
Crooked Bowl Rim
Have you ever walked into a room that had a few slightly crooked photos hanging on the wall? Some people don’t seem to notice and don’t care, while others need to straighten the frames immediately to feel at ease.
Our bowls can be made nice and level by using the between centers technique shared by David Ellsworth.
Try this with your next bowl.
Mount the bowl blank between centers and peel away a few layers until the bowl bottom is roughed out.
Stop the lathe and place the tool rest close to the top rim of the bowl.
Use your thumb as a marker and place the edge of your thumb along the top grain of the bowl on one side of the end grain.
Keep your thumb in place and manually turn the bowl blank over to the other end grain side.
How many grain lines down is your thumb on each side?
Take your time and use the tailstock to gently adjust the bowl blank until the rim is even on both sides of the end grain.
This technique works for regular rimmed bowls but is especially useful for turning equal sides of a natural edged bowl.
2. It’s All From The Center
The energy we use to turn wood and do everything else in life for that matter comes from our core or our center.
“Energy from the cut is coming from chi or our center,” David explains.
Ideally, we want to maintain an equilateral triangle between our shoulders, arms, and bowl gouge as we turn, but there’s much more than just that.
Smooth flowing cuts with the bowl gouge do not come from stiff mechanical movements made only by the hands and arms.
If you’ve ever had the chance to practice Tai Chi or have seen someone practicing this exercise, perhaps you can envision the slow, smooth fluid movements of this practice.
It may seem silly at first, but we really need to flow and almost dance while we turn wood bowls.
The energy and fluid movements needed to turn delicate bowl shapes are specific extensions and reflections of our fluid body movements.
Pay attention to your body as you turn.
Do you finish a cut and end up in an uncomfortable position? Are you pushing your hand and pressing the tool across the tool rest? At the end of a turning session, are you sore and achy?
Ideally, we need to make most turning cuts on the lathe with our whole body. When we don’t engage our complete form, particular areas of our body and muscles can become fatigued and even injured.
Smooth fluid bowl gouge moves derive from body motions that fully engage the feet, ankles, legs, knees, hips, and entire upper body all in unison.
In some ways a wood turned bowl is a record of the movements of our body. Loosen up and flow with the process.
Moving your whole body will not only release tension and stress in you, but it will most likely also increase the gracefulness of your finished bowls.
3. Peek Into The Future
When shaping the exterior of a wood bowl, it can seem efficient and routine to quickly add a tenon and flip the bowl over for clearing out the center.
However, instead of rushing the exterior of the bowl, it’s worth taking an extra moment or two.
If you recall in my article about bowl design, “the exterior is the bowl,” and it’s worth taking extra time fine-tuning the bowl shape.
David offers a simple yet powerful suggestion for “seeing” the final bowl shape.
When shaping a tenon and shoulder on the base of the bowl, David recommends undercutting or continuing the curved walls of the bowl down into the bottom of the bowl a small bit.
The purpose of making inward cuts into the shoulder area of the base is to continue the sweeping curve of the bowl visually.
Adding these indented cuts makes it very easy for our eyes to see and our mind to connect the bottom curve of the bowl. They act almost as arrows that help us understand the overall curved path.
It can be easy to leave a gentle flowing chamfer curve at the base of the bowl when we make a tenon and shoulder, but this can easily lure us into later missing the bowl’s natural curve and forming an oversized clunky bowl foot, or worse, going through the bowl bottom.
Try this on your next bowl. Take a moment and undercut the bottom bowl shape into the tenon shoulder area to pre-visualize the final bowl shape.
4. Asymmetrical Surprise
This tip from David was a fun surprise. It was one of those moments when you shake your head and say out loud, “what?” Moreover, with a smile, you say, “why didn’t I think of that?”
A branch crotch is almost always an interesting piece of wood to turn. Grain running in different directions and merging creates numerous opportunities.
Usually, I split a crotch down the center and make two “Y” shaped pieces to turn.
Turning a regular rimmed bowl using the flat inside portion of the log for the rim can be interesting but usually omits the dynamic “flame” area where the two limbs fuse.
Flipping the crotch and making a natural edge bowl is the best way I’ve found to showcase the internal grain structures.
That’s what I had done with crotch wood up to that point when David made me shake my head in surprise.
On the dry erase board, David drew a “Y” crotch, but instead of suggesting a traditional turning approach, he took a massive bite out of one of the crotch branches, almost like a shark bite on the side of the “Y.”
Instead of turning a balanced and even natural edge bowl, by utilizing the upward curve of the extending branch, we can turn an asymmetrical natural edge bowl.
An exaggerated asymmetrical design all goes back to design basics. If you’re going to make something “off” or asymmetrical, don’t be shy, do it with style.
Unlike the rims being annoyingly just a touch off, which we fixed with the first tip above, this is a very deliberate design choice.
Not only does this asymmetrical natural edge bowl look unique, but it also begs the viewer to think, ponder, explore the grain, and wonder, “how was this made?”
5. Rubbing Wrong
Here is a practical tip that ties back into the art of cutting end grain wood without tear outs, which I cover more in this article about dealing with end grain tear out.
As we turn along the bowl interior, we can easily apply extra pressure to the gouge and force it into the wood more than is necessary.
Extra force combined with the smooth edge of the bowl gouge bevel can cause our tool to almost burnish and rub the wood end grain fibers and leave marks.
One way to reduce this issue is to grind away the heel of the bowl gouge. As I explained in the bowl gouge basics article, the heel reduction makes less bevel to rub the wood and also allows the gouge to turn tighter curves efficiently.
When making push cuts, especially finishing cuts, we want to move slowly and evenly and only apply enough pressure to engage the cutting edge without much additional force.
6. New Perspective
This tip is so simple that I almost didn’t include it here. However, significant benefits hide in simplicity.
While working in David Ellsworth’s studio, I was turning the exterior of a bowl when David waved me over and asked me to come with him.
I had no idea where we were going. As it turned out, we didn’t go far, just the other side of the lathe.
Once away from the turning side of the lathe, I stood next to David and waited. He bent over, 90° at his waist and looked at the bowl sideways.
At first, I thought he was looking at the floor and may have dropped something in all the shavings. Then he asked me to do the same.
“Oh, wow,” I thought. The bowl does look very different without the tool rest and banjo interfering, not to mention the hovering vantage point of working above the bowl.
In front of the lathe, bent over sideways, the overall shape of the entire bowl exterior is clearly visible and accessible to visualize and decipher.
Try this next time. It can be beneficial when making subtle adjustments to the bowl design.
7. Shaking Hands
A few times during the workshop, David mentioned the concept of “shaking hands with the wood.”
When I asked him to expound on this statement, he added: “it’s a way of learning how to cut within the limits of the material whether it’s ebony or pine, spalted, wet or dry.”
In many ways shaking hands with the wood is being aware and responsive in the moment.
Instead of making mechanical, repetitive, predetermined movements, listen to and feel the bowl gouge as you cut.
What is it telling you?
Engage with the process. Don’t just cut “because,” but rather be aware of the whole experience.
Again, this might feel a bit awkward at first, like “dancing” while turning, but when we are fully aware of what is occurring at the lathe we can more fully respond to the minute signals and messages the bowl blank is sending us.
“Try not to force (overpower) the wood with your tools when cutting. Instead, discover each material by working with it. Learn from it, as you would a new friend,” David explains.
Think about those moments when it all comes together. When the cut is smooth, and the shavings flow, that’s the sweet spot. That’s shaking hands with the wood.
David Ellsworth Conclusion
I hope by sharing these tips I learned from David Ellsworth, you are inspired and motivated to try new things.
Besides inspiration, David also shares many practical techniques that can make immediate improvements in your turning practice.
After all, that’s all we need, practice, practice, practice.
David also suggests taking hands-on classes. Learn from people who know what they are doing. There is no substitute for hands-on learning.
If you’d like to attend a workshop with David Ellsworth, check out his website for details. Besides conducting workshops in his home studio in North Carolina, David also offers classes at the Anderson Ranch in Colorado.
Knowledge is the key to expanding your turning skills. Being able to learn from a master like David Ellsworth is as good as it gets, like icing on the wood bowl turning cake.